Gábor Tóka about the Fall 2021 Hungarian opposition primaries
In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Gábor Tóka discusses the recent opposition primaries and ongoing political developments in Hungary. The conversation explores the mobilizatory successes of the opposition forces with a focus on the most surprising elements of the primaries; the unexpected rise of Péter Márki-Zay and his character as a politician; the opportunities and challenges the united opposition faces and will continue to face; and the transformation and slide of the Orbán regime. You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.
Ferenc Laczó: How would you describe what has been happening in Hungarian politics in recent months? In what sense can the opposition primaries that have just taken place be considered truly novel?
Gábor Tóka: Primaries are, of course, nothing new as a method of candidate selection for elections, not even in broad coalitions of parties. They have been held in many places around the world. One thing that is probably novel in the Hungarian case is that such a wide and large opposition block of parties organizes primaries in an authoritarian context. That probably didn’t occur before.
There are two reasons for that. One is that in an authoritarian context it is a risky exercise to open up to outside interference in your candidate selection process. You may also have resource problems related to carrying out such an undertaking. Half or even more than half of the mass media in the country were either denying that these primaries were taking place, or they were spreading false information about it and tried to suggest that it was a completely fake, merely cosmetic show with no real competition, and so forth. Raising the money and getting the cooperation of tens of thousands of activists to carry out basic logistics of such an operation is not a trivial task in an authoritarian context. In that sense, the Hungarian primaries may have been a novel exercise.
Now looking at it specifically in the Hungarian context, there are probably three elements of novelty.
One novelty is that it is the first time, apart from the local elections in 2019, that virtually all the opposition will stand behind a united list and behind joint candidates in the single-member districts against the candidates of the Orbán regime. That novelty creates a very different dynamics in the country right now from what we have seen in the previous 11-12 years of the Orbán regime.
The second novelty is that the primaries are a very novel type of mobilization and conflict resolution tool within the opposition. They created a very interesting internal dynamics in the opposition camp with partly unpredictable consequences, which we will probably want to discuss later in our conversation. The third novelty is the surprise outcome. I think there were big surprises, also in the single-member districts where the joint candidates of the opposition were selected, both in terms of the general distribution between the parties and in terms of individual candidates. And then there was a surprising outcome in the second round where the opposition’s candidate for Prime Minister was selected. This is significant because it will shape the path that the opposition will take from here and will shape it in an unforeseen way, which we are still processing and trying to foresee.
Ferenc Laczó: Could I ask you what you consider the most surprising about the primaries in terms of the process and in terms of its outcomes? Several observers have remarked on the very high level of mobilization that the opposition has achieved already now, half a year ahead of the general elections. Would you agree that this is a remarkable success and, if so, what key reasons might lie behind that success?
Gábor Tóka: Yes, the mobilization was unexpectedly successful. And the entire logistics of the operation was unexpectedly problem-free and successful as well. There were cyber-attacks, there were various hiccups, there were all sorts of issues. But overall, I think, everyone was impressed by the capacity of the opposition to carry out such a complex enterprise in such a hostile environment in such a smooth manner while maintaining their political unity, cordial cooperation and impeccable manners throughout. That, I think, has made a very positive impression on the public, especially since a lot of people in the country didn’t really expect this The opposition parties did expect people to show up, of course, and people who knew them more closely had, I think, no doubt that they can pull this out. But for the general public, I think, this was a little surprising.
The turnout was a little higher than expected. It was eight and a half per cent of the total electorate in both rounds, so in total it was a little more than 11 per cent of the total electorate, which is significantly higher than what we used to see in French and Italian primary elections where there was not such a hostile media environment and there was a lot sounder organizational and financial background to the whole exercise. Compared to those counterparts, which are virtually the only comparable exercises in European history – they were not restricted to party members and really mobilized half the political spectrum –, there was a higher turnout in a far more difficult context in Hungary. That is impressive. It is, of course, the hostile environment itself which explains why people got so excited about the primaries and were so eager to engage with the process.
I think the main surprise wasn’t there, but more in the consequences for the internal dynamics within the opposition. It is a very big surprise, I think, and one that not even the political parties anticipated, although some of them were very hesitant going into the whole process exactly because they were a little bit concerned about that kind of unpredictable consequences may follow. However, I don’t think that this is the kind of unpredictable consequence that they had in mind. They had in mind a hostile interference from the government occurring in a sort of clandestine way. That either didn’t materialize or was completely unsuccessful and basically a shambles. Yet there was some sort of political intrigue at the end.
Let us draw a parallel with last year’s presidential election in Poland. Imagine what would have happened in that election if that was not a two round election but just one round of voting with a simple plurality rule, and the challenger to President Andrzej Duda of PiS would have been selected by the main opposition parties in a primary, and the candidate who would have come out of that had been Szymon Hołownia rather than Rafał Trzaskowski (who narrowly lost in the actual election to Duda). That is the kind of difference that these primaries have made in Hungary: there was an exciting and very competitive process to select the candidates to challenge the incumbents. Therefore, there was a much bigger engagement of the opposition electorate both cognitively and in terms of behavior. The high turnout made the opposition candidate not just a stronger candidate in competition with the regime candidate, but also a different kind of candidate than the main opposition candidate would have been otherwise.
There are all sorts of consequences in such a situation. To stay with the example of Poland, imagine if the current Hołownia’s supporters would have been integrated last year into the mainstream organized opposition while the Confederation and Paweł Kukiz would have been completely marginalized as a result of such a highly salient and exciting opposition primary. Obviously, Donald Tusk might have stayed in Brussels. And the PiS campaign for Duda’s re-election probably would have abandoned the homophobic line and would have concentrated on the tested and well-working “spend, spend, spend” welfare policies that PiS has been so successful with. Thus, really far-reaching consequences follow from the application of this seemingly simple tool of using primaries for candidate selection.
As a result, there is, on the one hand, a number of pluses for the opposition in Hungary.
There is a huge increase in how many people volunteer for opposition activities, how many people give donations, how many people show up at their rallies, how many people pay attention to them as an important political force. There is a clear widening of their support basis, which of course also increases the heterogeneity of the opposition camp and introduces the possibility of new conflict lines.
A lot of limelight is stolen from minor parties that are neither a part of the party-state, nor of the united opposition. There is most probably also a shift in the campaign themes (Fidesz has to alter their messaging halfway).
If these are the positives for the opposition, then there is probably also, and I wouldn’t call it a negative outcome, but rather a question mark, which arose from the process. Because the candidate for Prime Minister is a surprise package. Therefore, there is a massive and unpredictable shift in the career prospects of many individual politicians and in the political parties within the opposition.
The initially most likely candidates for Prime Minister lost the race. They were replaced in the role of the main character on the opposition side in this upcoming election by a maverick candidate, who is not so well-socialized into the norms and behavioral patterns in this coalition, and who is not so tacit in understanding the needs and fixations of the various parties in the coalition. Incidentally, he is also a person who is a lot more inspired by the rules of the game in American presidential democracy, with open primaries, free-for-all competitions and very loose political party organizations than with European-style, party-based, parliamentary democracy with coalitions taking precedent over individual politicians. Péter Márki-Zay is a little bit unpredictable as a candidate and part of the current excitement is due to precisely that.
It is too early to judge whether this will be a negative or a positive factor for the opposition. I think a lot of positives could come out of the maverick nature of the main opposition candidate.
There are also significant concerns though. His style, his political socialization, his different political anchors could have negative effects on the future of the coalition and how successfully it can govern, if it comes to that possibility. It will take some time for the dust to settle and for everyone to calm down a little bit. Right now, participants seem very excited and kind of curious and nervous about what we are going to learn about the prospects of the opposition in the coming weeks and months.
Ferenc Laczó: Let us zoom in even more on what is certainly among the most surprising and the most consequential outcomes, namely that Péter Márki-Zay has emerged as the lead candidate of the opposition. This is certainly something that just a couple of months ago hardly anyone would have thought possible. What kind of politician is he and how would you explain his meteoric rise? What is his special appeal to the Hungarian oppositional electorate at this point? And what do we know about the people who have voted for him in these two rounds of the primaries in terms of their views and socio-economic backgrounds?
Gábor Tóka: I would downplay a little bit your “meteoric” adjective, because Péter Márki-Zay has been around for a couple of years by now. It is very important for understanding his rise that he has been already a household name. Not just among activists, but in the attentive public as well – his name recognition was quite high before this primary election process started.
The first thing that has to be said about Márki-Zay is that he is a very unusual political talent. He has a degree of self-confidence, integrity, calm, persistence, and instinctive talent that is rarely seen – it is certainly very rare in Hungarian politics.
That talent comes through very clearly when he starts talking to an audience. He is not someone who gives rousing speeches by shouting and the like. He has substantial thoughts presented in an accessible way, but he also has a talent to touch upon the feelings and shared aspirations of the audience. He is not the kind of populist who becomes one with the audience in the sense that he puts his finger on the pulse of the audience and then says what the audience wants to hear. No, he has his own stories. He has his own message and sticks to that. He is in fact incredibly consistent and presents his message with massive self-belief and self-confidence, with intelligence and quite calmly, in an almost cold way. And speaks with the persuasive power of someone who seems to know what he’s talking about and what it takes to do it and is ready to go all the way.
He is a very engaged person who has been following politics for a long time and has been part of discussions with very sophisticated friends for a long period of time. He is very educated about politics. He wrote a PhD in history on a sort of political economy topic. His profession was completely unrelated but not useless either: he worked in business marketing in Canada and the United States for some time. He speaks many languages.
After his return to Hungary, he worked in a small town in the countryside again in the field of marketing. His town, Hódmezővásárhely, has been clearly dominated by Fidesz. Throughout its history, in terms of electoral politics it has been a kind of nationalist-leaning place, but not the fiefdom of landlords. It was rather a town of free peasants who were combatant and who historically were kind of leaning towards the nationalist and right-wing causes. The town was very much dominated by Fidesz for the last 20+ years, and Márki-Zay himself was a Fidesz supporter even during the first Fidesz government. He got disappointed partly with the policies of Fidesz and especially because of the authoritarian and anti-Western turns of Fidesz, plus he was appalled by sleaze and corruption. Then he got persuaded by his friends who realized his instinctive political talent that he should run in a mayoral election, which was coming up in that town in 2018, just a month and a half before the parliamentary election of 2018.
This was a by-election prompted by the passing away of the incumbent mayor. The opposition had absolutely no appetite to run candidates in that election because they were absolutely certain that they would lose, not least because they lost every election in that town to Fidesz for over 20 years. They weren’t very keen on losing a nationally visible by-election before the national election. They let this guy coming out of nowhere run as the only opposition candidate in that election. Everyone expected, himself included, that he would lose, but the local opposition from left to far-right lined up behind him. He got a little bit of support from the national headquarter of Jobbik too. And he pulled out a huge surprise-victory in an incredibly authoritarian environment. It was a dead-oppressive environment, yet he pulled out a 57 to 42 per cent victory in that race. It was incredible.
That naturally created for him a big platform to campaign nationally and he became a national figure from very early on in his tenure as mayor. As a local mayor, he was under a barrage of attacks, personal and political. Fidesz still had a two-thirds majority in the local council, so they tried to destroy him by whatever means possible, but he persisted. He became, I would say, not a successful mayor under the circumstances, because his municipality was deprived of all money resources by the national government. But he certainly showed persistence, creativity, and some degree of administrative competence in running the show as much as he could. One and a half years later, he was re-elected with an even bigger majority.
His brand of politics always had a potential to attract the parts of the anti-Fidesz electorate that were not very happy with the opposition as it existed before.
That’s the audience that basically discovered him and discovered that he has a chance in this fall’s primary election after the first round. That’s what created his big national momentum, which carried him to victory in the second round.
There is nothing particularly unbelievable about this victory. There were interesting twists and turns of events that led to his appearance as the only challenger to the front runner after the first round of the primary election (the mayor of Budapest unexpectedly withdrew from the race and lent his support to Márki-Zay in the second round). From then on, I don’t think that it was particularly surprising to anyone that he could win in the second round against Klára Dobrev, the candidate from one of the two bigger parties in the opposition.
Ferenc Laczó: Let us look at more general questions regarding the opposition and the regime as well. What is your opinion about how the united opposition looks right now after the primaries? In what sense does this broad coalition of forces that was created to try to unseat Viktor Orbán and Fidesz appear stronger and more unified? In what respects might these primaries have revealed new internal fault lines within the united opposition? Beyond that, we could talk also about what you expect the legacy of these primaries to be in the coming months. With that, we could perhaps return to the question what difference it will make that Márki-Zay is rather a center-right, conservative politician, heading what is in many ways a center-left and liberal coalition, and that he is a lead candidate without a strong party or a strong movement of his own, at least for the moment.
Gábor Tóka: Márki-Zay indeed has a very consistent self-presentation: he doesn’t stop mentioning that he is a Christian conservative, that he has seven children and is a devout Catholic, and so forth. However, this does not appear to be particularly relevant for his political line. He is certainly not a left-wing politician. I would say that he would be a Never Trump Republican in America.
On economics, he is very pro-market and very pro-business. He is for low taxes and likes the flat tax system introduced by Fidesz. He doesn’t like the downside of that system, which is an extremely high VAT and de facto an extremely digressive taxation of everything else but income. In other words, he is for lower taxes than they are now in Hungary, where the overall tax burden, especially on the less affluent part of the population, is just incredibly high. In almost any comparison, it appears virtually unprecedented how much tax burden is put on less affluent people in Hungary right now. He is certainly against that.
But in terms of social policies, he is not a terribly conservative person, I think, from what we have heard so far. First of all, he doesn’t want to impose a version of Sharia law: he probably is a devout Christian, but that’s a private matter for him. And he really believes in the American ideal of complete separation of church and state and that the Church law shouldn’t dictate secular law. He certainly understands that on issues of marriage, abortion rights and what not his views are probably in a very small minority in the country, and he wouldn’t want to impose those views on the public. He is happy to follow his convictions in his own life and let people live according to the laws that are produced by the democratic process, in which on these issues he is in the minority. He is even in favor of gay marriage legislation, if there is sufficient support for that in the legislature. I wouldn’t say he is genuinely conservative in terms of policies on social matters.
The key thing is that right now in Hungary it’s really not so terribly relevant how left or right you are, because the main dividing line is between the authoritarian regime and its opposition that is pledged to restore democracy, the rule of law, and that wants to pursue a firm alliance with the West on the big questions of the day, that wants to make greater efforts to fight climate change globally, which is more internationalist than the current government, and so forth.
From the former far-right to the most left-wing sections of the current opposition, there is a broad-based consensus on all these things that I just listed. And in all those respects, Márki-Zay is clearly part of the opposition unity and not so very far from the policy median of that coalition.
A legitimate concern for other opposition politicians is that he is more inspired by presidential than by parliamentary politics. This is what he probably experienced as a good democratic example, especially in the United States, and also as a directly elected mayor in his home town. A presidential style is also in line with his personality.
How well would he fit into a parliamentary coalition government? That is an interesting question. It will take him a lot of learning, I think. But we are talking about a person who is both willing and capable of learning from everything that we have seen about him before, so I don’t think that this is necessarily something that will break up the opposition coalition. But it is going to be an interesting thing to watch out for.
Speaking about the six parties of the opposition, I think what I said just before applies, although there are indeed left-wing colors in it as well as the former far-right radical component. But de facto these parties are not policy wonks. Most of the parties are not particularly strongly policy-oriented, except for some broad convictions about foreign policy, the rule of law, corruption, and so forth. I think it is fair to say that the former far right, the liberals in the coalition as well as the left all want to move economic and social policies quite a bit to the left from where they are now. They all want to move more in the direction of moderate social democratic policies, which is not totally alien to Márki-Zay either. They can easily agree on that.
There can be wedge issues, of course. The Fidesz government tried to use wedge issues to divide the opposition and to blow up the alliance before, such as anti-gay propaganda, and they will try to do that in the coming months as well. However, this alliance will not split up before the election. It would be political suicide for any one of them to quit the alliance and every one of them knows.
They also like working together and have already been doing that for three years. They did lots of practical things. The biggest obviously was the organization of the primary elections, but they did many other small projects together. Working together helps healing wounds, helps mutual understanding, it helps building up shared identities, a spirit of trust, and a belief in the given word when you see it being honored. By and large, they had a very rewarding experience with each other in the last couple of years. The actors themselves seem surprised and impressed by that and they genuinely enjoy their cooperation.
They will face massive difficulties. Whatever the outcome of the election, there are two possibilities. They could lose one way or another and then disappointment will lead to reflection, a blame game, soul searching and some people trying to advance their personal carrier by putting forward arguments that this whole alliance was the wrong idea. They will inevitably have conflicts if they lose. If they end up in government, they will have a whole new world ahead of them. This would be exciting and push them to stick together as the only survival technique possible in an extremely hostile environment. But they would face huge challenges, which they wouldn’t always manage to deal with successfully.
This is an authoritarian regime, which means it’s not that the winner of the election will automatically run the show in the country. The opposition might be able to form a government, but that doesn’t mean that they will have the powers that a regular democratic government has.
Quite the contrary, a Fidesz opposition would possess lots of the powers that in a normal democratic country the government has. That opposition would be stronger and more cohesive, and very determined to do maximum damage to the government without consideration for the national public good. It would be an opposition that is single-mindedly focused on damaging the government, undermining it and replacing it with its own government as quickly as possible, and with the intent of staying in power indefinitely afterwards.
I think the safe prediction is that there will be big problems keeping the opposition alliance together after the election, whether they lose or win. But until then there will be just skirmishes, partly for public relations purposes. But you should not read too much into those skirmishes in the coming months if you will see them.
Ferenc Laczó: You have just started talking about the regime, but we haven’t really discussed yet what recent developments have revealed about the Orbán regime. We have been talking for years now about the slide into illiberal state building and about the increasingly authoritarian forms of governance in the country. But this is certainly also a regime that is contested internally. What have recent developments and the new political situation revealed to you about the regime? How has the regime aimed to respond to the new situation? And what does the revival of the opposition show us about the kind of regime that is in place in contemporary Hungary?
Gábor Tóka: Let’s start with the nature of the regime. This is a regime which recognizes elections as the currency of political legitimacy. It is an authoritarian government in the sense that it constructed a political system where everything is there to make sure that the opposition can never win. And we don’t exactly know how far they are ready to go to prevent the opposition from winning elections in legitimate ways. Partly because they don’t know this themselves: they always improvise and tweak and adjust things as challenges arise.
Certainly, there is no even playing field, but there are elections that need to look somewhat competitive and somewhat open to generate the general feeling in the country that even if there was a free election, you wouldn’t be able to beat them. This is key for this kind of authoritarian regimes as they are not traditional dictatorships.
The Hungarian regime doesn’t even put people in prison. There could be a couple of footnotes added to this, but by and large they don’t put people behind bars. Political violence is widely rejected as a means of politics in the country. You can say many bad things about politics in Hungary, but you can certainly say that sometime in the 1960s, 70s and 80s this country came to thinking that violence is not acceptable as a means of settling political differences. And that consensus still works. It keeps on eroding by the day, as polarization between the authoritarian regime and its democratic opposition deepens and becomes ever more heated. There is thus some erosion of this norm, but by and large the norm still holds.
This means that if you are an authoritarian, you still have to win in a peaceful manner to generate an appearance of electoral legitimacy: you have to tolerate some appearance of free elections.
That is the dilemma of the regime: how can you win safely but also enjoy some credibility that you won against genuine opponents, and thereby convince enough people that you would be able to win even if the competition was not as constrained and unbalanced as it is?
In other words, it is in the nature of the regime that it wants to allow opposition but only so long as that opposition is not a real challenger to its power.
We should remember that the opposition always had broad support in Hungary. The regime only once managed a vote share of more than 50 percent in a national election. The regime party also had almost 52 per cents in the last European elections. But the opposition usually had more votes in the last 10 years in almost every election than the government side. It’s just that the opposition was fragmented.
Now that the opposition is kind of united, they will be able to pull together most of their votes. They will lose some because not everyone will be able to stomach all the faces of the opposition on the list. But they will be compensated for those losses by other voters who previously didn’t vote because they thought it was all so hopeless and such a pointless thing to vote. Now they will show up and vote for the opposition, because they are unhappy with the government and will see that there is a capable, potent opposition.
The opposition certainly has a very good chance of winning somewhat more votes than the government – just as the various opposition parties did in the past when they were not united yet. The difference is that they now also have a vastly improved chance to convert that into a majority of seats in the Parliament. But it will still be very difficult to win because the electoral system is so biased.
It was imposed by the authoritarian regime in 2011, and it is tweaked in a number of different ways to keep the government in power indefinitely. So the opposition will have to win a lot more votes than the government to have the narrowest of seat majorities in the Parliament. It’s not guaranteed either that the votes will be properly counted, or that there will be no legal challenges surrounding the elections that will hinder the opposition. On top of that, early next year a new head of state will be elected, who will follow whatever is Viktor Orbán’s desire after the election regarding who should get the nomination for Prime Minister and the chance to form a government. Even after losing the election, they would have means of playing games.
Having said that, a scenario that the Orbán regime clearly has in mind is that they may have to let the opposition form a government. In that case, they need to siphon all resources, decision rights, and everything possible from the national government and outsource them to private companies, to “independent agencies” and whatever other entities will remain firmly under Orbán’s informal control after the next election. One scenario that they clearly have in mind is that they will let the opposition form the government, and then the opposition will not be able to do much with the tax laws, because changing the tax laws requires two-thirds majority. The opposition will not be able to do major changes in the budget, because there are already earmarked moneys all over the place. There are international contracts tying the government to major projects, which will take care of the national budget for the coming years.
The public debt will run to such a high level by the time of the election that an incoming government will not be able to go even further by taking out foreign loans. They will not be able to successfully issue bonds domestically either. There will not be much space to maneuver in term of budget changes for a new government.
There is also a so-called Budget Council. This is an authoritarian institution inserted into the Hungarian Basic Law by Fidesz in 2011. Three political appointees of the current government are or will be cemented in positions for many years to come after the election. The three of them collectively can decide that the budget passed by the Parliament is not good enough. If they veto the budget, they can prompt an election that the head of state has to call – and the head of state will be someone elected for five years next February by the current Fidesz majority in the Parliament. It will be a head of state who would do everything to undermine a new, incoming government by the current opposition.
Higher education policies are not in the hands of the national government any longer either, because the universities with very few exceptions have been privatized in the last couple of months and they are now under curators appointed by Fidesz. Such university curators often include straightforward party soldiers. The General Prosecutor can block raising charges against anyone in the country on any ground. And this General Prosecutor will be there for many years to come. It seems that the new majority could not legally remove him from his office, and he can stop any investigation into Viktor Orbán’s personal finances or whatever other matter that other attorneys around the country might want to take up. The high courts are filled with professionally unqualified appointees, who have the very clear looks of party soldiers. The Competition Office just destroyed the only one among the top twenty rich people in the country who dared to openly support opposition causes in the last couple of years – they just passed a ruling which basically takes away his companies through a fine that they imposed on him on what are probably very dubious grounds.
You can go on and on listing all sorts of “independent agencies” that according to one rule or another the new majority in the Parliament will not be able to touch. They will assure that Fidesz appointees run the show in the country no matter what kind of government will be responsible for paying the salaries of the cleaners in the Prime Minister’s office in Budapest.
What the opposition can do if the unbelievable thing happens, and they actually end up forming a government after the election, will be a hotly discussed question in the coming months – a major subject perhaps for another conversation.
Ferenc Laczó: We have just covered what kind of election we can expect to have in the spring of 2022 and some of the potential consequences the outcome of that election might have. In closing I wanted to ask you a slightly different question as well, since you are also an expert on electoral behavior. I was wondering whether you could tell us a bit about what key changes in electoral preferences you can observe. How have the electorates of the incumbent and the oppositional forces evolved? What kind of changes do you see unfolding at the moment? We could maybe try to go back all the way to 2010 and how Fidesz’s own electorate has been transformed since and what that then means for the political process more generally.
Gábor Tóka: One thing that we probably didn’t emphasize enough so far is that Fidesz is popular with a large and significant section of the electorate, which is cohesive and is ready to vote for them. It’s not some kind of silly media manipulation that makes them vote for Fidesz. Maybe thirty per cent of the electorate really think that this is the most successful government Hungary had in the last hundred years, which has delivered in a mighty way on numerous fronts, which creates reasonably ordered conditions, decent economic growth, stability, and predictability so that one can get along and succeed. It also has on some symbolic issues the kind of nationalist or clerical conservative policies that the aforementioned section of the electorate genuinely likes. In other words, the government has a genuine support basis, which is very enthusiastic and ready to take all sorts of little disappointments on the cheek. They see that there is corruption and that there are financial wrongdoings under this government, but they think that there have always been under every government and there will always be anyway.
They have millions of ways of explaining to themselves why they tolerate this or that negative aspects of the regime. That’s the largest minority in the electorate. This segment has never been as much as 50 per cent of the electorate.
The composition of Fidesz voters has indeed been changing over time. The party had more urban voters in 2010 than it has now. The support base of Fidesz is shifting towards the smaller localities, towards the less affluent parts of the country. There are many question marks about why this is happening. Is it because these people are so deprived of access to unbiased political information, or is it because the opposition’s ability to reach out to these places has been so heavily undermined by the authoritarian features of the regime? Or is it that the countryside really likes the policies of Fidesz so much more than what the opposition offers? There are question marks about this, but there is no question mark about Fidesz having a large voter base, which is predominantly rural, which is predominantly not very affluent, which comes from all sorts of age groups, though a little less from among the young than among the middle aged and older.
On the other side, you have an extremely heterogeneous opposition. The unifying factor is that a lot of people want to get this government out, in fact a lot more than those who will vote for the opposition. But not everyone who wants to see this government out has very high hopes of this opposition, is particularly happy with the personnel in the opposition, or likes its policies. In other words, the opposition cannot mobilize all opponents of the government.
Márki-Zay, who is bringing in a little bit of a shift in what it means to be an opposition supporter may create a change in this. And, if there is a 4-5 per cent shift towards the opposition in the coming months, then suddenly we will be playing a completely different ballgame. For the last maybe 13-14 months, roughly all the time since they announced that they will run on a joint list in the 2022 election, the opposition has enjoyed a very small lead in terms of likely vote shares, which incidentally would not be enough to acquire a parliamentary majority because of the unfair nature of the electoral system.
The Márki-Zay factor can bring them to a stage where they can have a clear majority and possibly could even get to a point, although that’s very unlikely, that they might win a two-thirds majority in the Parliament. It would be a very different game from then on, also in terms of what Fidesz will do during the campaign and how happy they are going to be to move into opposition after the election.
This very heterogeneous opposition electorate is kind of the mirror image of Fidesz’s electorate. The latter is very socially conservative, very anti-immigrant, very happy with this government, while the opposition’s electorate tends to be more liberal on social issues, very unhappy with the government, very critical of the government on foreign policy, on environmental and social policy, on education, on health. They probably broadly prefer a slight shift to the left in these policies and certainly prefer a shift towards a more pro-Western direction in foreign policy.
Beyond this, it’s kind of hard to say anything more specific simply because of two factors. One is that the programmatic content of party competition wasn’t enormous in Hungary before 2010, and the shift to an authoritarian regime cut back on the policy content even compared to what was there before 2010. So now it’s much more “for Orbán or against Orbán” – for whatever reason, that question appears to motivate people in both camps. It is therefore an illusion to expect very clear ideological camps forming on the opposition side. Of course, you have less heterogeneity between the electorates of the supporters of the individual parties within the opposition alliance. But even those do not have such a clear profile in terms of policy preferences or ideological leanings.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In collaboration with Vilius Kubekas.